Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Life Force in Animals--- and in Rocks

March 18, 2011

Itís been an axiom of my thinking and my writing that humansí relating with animals differs in some essential way from our relating with all other parts of the universe. Ancient redwood trees, high-stalked sunflowers, bones-of-the-Earth red-rock formations may all compel, for me, a gasp of admiration, a whisper of delight, an urge to stop time with a photograph.

Yet admiration is not immersion. Trees, flowers, and rocks leave me thirsting for a sort of base mutuality. The gorilla who dares to look me in the eyes, the cat who head-bumps my chin, the bunny who thumps his way across a room for an ear-stroking, itís they who immerse my heart. Itís a paradox of sorts because I feel just the same when confronted with creatures who remain stolidly indifferent to my presence, like the grazing bison or the soaring eagle. With them too the mutuality pulses on, because with them I feel the shared life force of dwelling in and dying from this world.

As an anthropologist I know something about animism, the idea that all sorts of objects in the world, even rocks, may have spirits and souls. Iíve enjoyed the writing of geologists who describe the dynamic thrusts of our Earth in terms of fierce endearment. And once at a visitor center in the Grand Canyon, I touched the Vishnu schist, a rock thatís almost two billion years old. As decidedly cool as that was, the life force for me that day stopped at my fingertips, as my flesh met the flat rock.

Iím glad Iím going back to the Grand Canyon in 2012, because Iíve had one of those rare, joyful, catapult-like shifts in perspectives that a good writer can bring to bear on oneís sensibilities. In the memoir Iím reading this week [disclosure: I am quite close to the end but havenít finished yet], called The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch grabs that life force and propels it powerfully into rocks so that never again will I see (or touch) rocks in the same way.

Yuknavitch writes:

Suddenly a gray rock becomes ashen or clouded with dream. A ring round a rock is luck. To find a red rock is to discover earthblood. Blue rocks make you believe in them. Patterns and flecks on rocks are bits of different countries and terrains, speckled questions. Conglomerates are the movement of land in the freedom of water, smoothed into a small thing you can hold in your hand, rub against your face. Sandstone is soothing and lucid. Shale, of course, is rational. Find pleasure in these ordinary palm worlds. Help yourself prepare for a life. Recognize when there are no words for the pain, when there are no words for the joy, there are rocks. Fill all the clear drinking glasses in your house with rocks, no matter what your husband or lover thinks. Gather rocks in small piles on the counters, the tables, the windowsills. Divide rocks by color, texture, size, shape. Collect some larger stones, place them along the floor of your living room, never mind what the guests think, build an intricate labyrinth of inanimates. Move around your rocks like a curl of water. Begin to detect smells and sounds to different varieties of rock. Give names to some, not geological, but of your own making. Memorize their presence, know if one is missing or out of place. Bathe them in water once each week. Carry a different one in your pocket every day. Move away from normal but donít notice it. Move towards excess but donít care. Own more rocks than clothing, than dishes, than books. Lie down next to them on the floor, put the smaller ones in your mouth occasionally. Sometimes, feel lithic, or petrified, or rupestral instead of tired, irritable, depressed. At night, alone, naked, place one green, one red, one ashen on different parts of your body. Tell no one.

That is memoir, but it is also poetry. No animism-account, geological discourse, or close-schist encounter ever made me see rocks and feel rocks like Yuknavitch has. A bit further on she writes of rocks: ďThey carry the chronology of water. All things simultaneously living and dead in your hands.Ē

Iím blasted by this writing. Yuknavitchís rock passages are just precisely on fire for me, because they brought alive my unrealized mutuality with rocks.

I recommend The Chronology of Water with every spare heartbeat. But donít let me imply itís a gentle paen to the natural world. No, the rock passages describe a time after Yuknavitchís daughter was stillborn. Yuknavitch was lost, and lost, we learn, for so many wounded reasons besides that single tragedy. Her memoir roots itself in a ferocious sexuality and turns terrible pain into beauty on the page, into beauty in her own being.

I feel its life force.


  1. March 18, 2011 7:34 AM EDT
    Wow! I'll have to find this book. We live with rocks, here, since my husband was my geology lab instructor and I was a major for awhile. And I almost always have a rock in my pocket. Thanks!
    - Mary Pratt
  2. March 18, 2011 9:28 AM EDT
    Sounds very interesting and I will try to read it. Have never been a rock person particularly but I can relate to the healing power of obsessions.
    - Molly Mullin
  3. March 18, 2011 8:03 PM EDT
    Yuknavitch's prose is beautiful--and so is yours. But her knowledge or belief or experience is so foreign--my immersions remain largely with mammals, occasionally with beloved plants (but in the latter case, I TOTALLY anthropomorphize).

    Spring is springing--I hope the light is energizing you the way it does me!
    - Colleen
  4. March 18, 2011 8:25 PM EDT
    Some years ago, I started collecting stones from the oceanbeach with Sarah. I think the first time was in Italy- not seashells but stones. There's something about their temperature that I love- the coldness of them. And I love thinking about where they've traveled, through the sea. So those memories and images were my 'way in' to Yuknavitch's rock-centered writing, though she transported me somewhere different as I say. The whole book has brought me to tears (of memory or admiration) at several points, on incredibly diverse topics.
    - Barbara J. King
  5. March 19, 2011 6:51 AM EDT
    I came across this poem this morning in a reread of Ursula K. LeGuin's "Always Coming Home."


    I am coherent, mysterious, and solid.
    I sit on dirt in sunlight between the live oaks.
    Once I was a sun, again I will be dark.
    Now I am between those great thins for a while
    along with other people, here in the valley.
    - Mary Pratt
  6. March 19, 2011 12:48 PM EDT
    I've started a new, also terrific book now, called ANNABEL by Kathleen Winter. And there in the first 60 pages, I come across sentences reflective of an Inuit perspective in Canada: "A white man, for instance, had no idea of the life within stones. Imagine that."
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.